From maleficent to badass: the evolution of the witch in movies and series

For nearly a century now the representation of the witch in the seventh art as in television series has continued to evolve. From an ugly and dangerous old lady, to a bewitching young woman and then in tune with the times, passing through the brilliant and courageous teenager: this popular figure is constantly subject to reinvention. A change that also seems to go hand in hand with the place of women in society, and the perception that we have of them. As confirmed by the documentary titled “Witches in Hollywood”, which aired last year on OCS.

A negative and stereotypical representation

Walt Disney’s work, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), is undoubtedly one of the first negative representations of the witch in cinema. And what’s more, in a feature film intended for children. In this cartoon, the witch – also called the evil queen – forges the imagination of the little ones. If she appears in the guise of an outrageously made-up and attractive woman when she takes on her role of sovereign, Snow White’s stepmother does not forget to transform into a hunchbacked old woman, with a hooked nose adorned with a wart, and hooded in a large black cloak, when she becomes a witch. Vanity – one of the main characteristics of the fairer sex obviously – the latter has only one goal, to kill her daughter-in-law to become again the most beautiful in the kingdom (beautiful life project). A daughter-in-law who, by the way, is shown as naive, dreaming of Prince Charming, and who spends her days cleaning the household of seven men. A host of stereotypes therefore already surrounds the character of the witch but also of the woman.

Two years later, the American director, Victor Fleming, released his film adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”. The work then features two antagonistic witches. On the one hand Glinda, the kind and beautiful witch of the South, represented in a sparkling, vaporous pink dress adorned with jewels, a crown and a magic wand – in the image of the good fairies. On the other, the wicked witch of the West, Elphaba, ugly by a green face, hooked hands and a pointy hat, running away on a broom. Two representations at the antipodes which imply the beauty of kindness and the ugliness of wickedness. What to frighten and warn the little blond heads tempted to deviate from the right path.

Much later, the Disney studios made “Hocus Pocus” (1993). If we will see later how the representation of the witch has fundamentally changed in the meantime, this fantastic comedy relaunches the cliché of the woman with a poor physique and guided by bad intentions. Indeed, in the film, three evil sisters with magical powers – played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler and Kathy Najimy – appear decked out in colorful costumes, sharp nails and malicious smiles. One of them even adopts an original hairstyle that resembles the iconic witch hat. After being freed from the spell that kept them prisoner, the trio have only one desire, to feed on children. Another popular idea very present in the ancestral imagination. Once again, clichés die hard, even in the early 1990s.

The dangerously seductive witch

From a long demonized figure, the witch then becomes femme fatale, as shown by the films “My wife is a witch” (1942) and “The adorable neighbor” (1958). Actresses Veronica Lake and Kim Novak thus embody seductive women, physically resembling the beauty canons of their time. These bewitching witches now leave magical and childish worlds to settle among men. We then bring to the screen a concupiscent male gaze who wants a sexy woman to take care of her household. A fantasy that can be dangerous since these eroticized witches hide their magical nature, and are portrayed as beings with a strong power of seduction, from which charmed men cannot escape. A portrait that sexualizes the woman, making her tempting and manipulative.

A wind of modernity?

During the 1960s, the desire to escape the patriarchal aegis that governed societies was felt. Women dream of emancipation and equality. It was at this time that the series “My Beloved Witch” (1964 – 1972) made its appearance. The idyllic life of Samantha, a clumsy young witch, and her husband captivates many homes. But beneath its ingenuous sitcom airs featuring the American dream, “My Beloved Witch” also shows that being a perfect housewife is a feat, or rather magic. A way of revalorizing the place of the housewife until then neglected.

Twenty years later, women have seized their freedom, but that does not prevent the seventh art from continuing to eroticize and romanticize the figure of the witch. One thinks in particular of the films “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987) with Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Les Ensorceleuses” (1998) with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, or even “Un amour de sorcière” (1997) with Vanessa Paradis and Jeanne Moreau. However, what differs from previous representations is that these young women are more assertive of their strength of character and their desire for independence.

A new image in tune with the times

At the same time, the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s marked a new turning point. The witch has a new, more ordinary and benevolent face in films and series that are less dramatic and aimed at both young and adult audiences. Thus, the animated feature film “Kiki the little witch” (1989) portrays a teenage girl in search of her powers, and seduces the youngest. “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” (1996 – 2003) became a cult series for an entire generation. For its part, “Charmed” (1998 – 2006), broadcast in France on M6 in the Saturday Night Trilogy, depicts the adventures of the Halliwell sisters who fight demons while leading their sentimental and professional lives.

In 2001, the literary saga “Harry Potter” was adapted for cinema. A nice masterstroke that revives a certain craze for magic. Witches are no longer predominantly women, but can be men like the young wizard with glasses and his friend Ron. Nevertheless, an important female character holds the top of the bill, in the person of Hermione Granger. The teenager is undeniably the character asset of the gang. Intelligent, cunning and benevolent, the character played by Emma Watson has nothing to envy of her two accomplices. And let’s be honest, without her the trio wouldn’t be able to get by so easily. A true example of female empowerment very inspiring for the younger generations.

The return of witches in cinema and in series

For several years now, witches have made their comeback on television. Proof that the latter are still on the rise. In 2011, Ryan Murphy devoted the third season of his horror series “American Horror Story: Coven” to them. In the process, the ABC channel is developing its own program based on fairy tales and magic with “Once Upon a Time” (2011 – 2018). And success is at the rendezvous since the show which juggles between magical world and real world lasted seven seasons. Another proof, the nostalgia which surrounds the magic series, like the reboot of “Charmed”, diffused since 2018, and the return of the famous apprentice witch with “The New Adventures of Sabrina”, whose last season has just been released. on Netflix. All of them show badass, independent and free witches.

Cinema does not escape this trend either. In 2014 and 2019, Disney succumbed and brought to the screen two feature films dedicated to Maleficent, the witch of “Sleeping Beauty”, starring Angelina Jolie. The big-eared studios then imagine an aesthetic and vengeful witch whom they then portray as sensitive and loving.

More recently, Warner Bros. decided to exploit the lucrative vein of witchcraft by entrusting Robert Zemeckis with the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s work, “Sacred Witches” with Anne Hathaway. A feature film with a polished image which has only been released on the HBO Max streaming platform for the moment, given the closure of dark rooms.

Over the past eight decades, the portrayal of the witch in cinema and television has marked the ages. After having long remained engraved in the collective imagination as a horrible being with greenish skin, a hooked nose and indulging in strange rituals, she then appeared as the object of all fantasies. An image of a dangerous seductress who will stick to her for a long time. Then the seventh art breaks away from it and offers it a new face: that of a free and independent young woman, master of her body and her destiny. Today the witch no longer frightens but fascinates.

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